IAIN ROBERTSON

Having attained world recognition on the motorsports platform, writes Iain Robertson, Japanese brand Subaru, which has not rallied as a factory team for a decade, has an almighty task to change potential customers’ perceptions.

It was snorting comedy actor, Kenneth Williams, who coined the expression: “Infamy, infamy, they’ve orl gottit in for me!”. Being famous has its downsides, as all too many personalities will surely recount, from either A-list or Z-list contenders. If managed ‘correctly’, fame can be all-encompassing and durable. However, mis-managed, it can lead to a tragic fall from grace.

Judicious branding and brand associations can create unlikely heroes. Where would actor Anthony Head, renowned for his role in ‘Buffy The Vampire-slayer’, have been without Nescafe Gold Blend? For personalities in speciality fields, the world of TV and cinema advertising broadens their portfolios and makes ex-footballers, like David Beckham, every bit as famous for promoting Haig Scotch Whisky around the world.

In motorsport, the most famous racing driver never to win a World Championship, Sir Stirling Moss, earned world-wide recognition from the various products he endorsed. Yet, the son of a Scottish rallying plumber, Colin McRae, gained notoriety from rallying a Subaru and became the World Champion, even though his association with Subaru ended 20 years ago. Such was the power of the marketing machine around his name that a blend of clothing and electronic games survives over a decade after he died in a tragic helicopter crash.

For some people and companies, these connections can be both a bounteous boon and an albatross burden, not dissimilar to the eponymous sailor from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Subaru withdrew from international motorsport to concentrate on its car business but many of its fans will simply not allow it, which creates an undercurrent of antipathy that is very sad. To ignore the latest Subaru Levorg, because it lacks the fire-breathing urge of its Impreza Turbo forebear, is to miss out on a tremendous dynamic package.

Yet, Subaru UK, which is managed by IM Group, the Birmingham-based concessionaire, lacks the strength of the manufacturer to manage such a major change in product direction. The fact that Subaru models still feature heavily in non-frontline racing and rallying, as well as other forms of motorsport, does not help to erase a time-honoured repute, even though the brand strengths remain on a pinnacle.

The design of the Levorg is steeped in ‘Old Skool’ artistry. Lacking the swoops, slashes and edginess of most of its Oriental stablemates serves to make it stand out, as a conservative, crisp, yet subtle mid-size contender. In this respect, Subaru has virtually replaced the Soichiro-era of Honda in the new car scene, its latest models having disappeared down a weird, semi-Samurai route instead. A slightly ‘apologetic’ face and hunkered down flanks of the Levorg actually arise from the installation of the company’s signature ‘Boxer’ engine (flat-four cylinders, horizontally-opposed configuration) that gifts the car an exceptionally low centre of gravity that ensures market-leading stability, agility and perfect dynamic balance, of an order that makes most of its mainstream rivals look slightly sick. Its steering weight and responses are judged perfectly and it is possible to turn, without unnecessary kickback, in a linear fashion, through bends of any severity, with minimal body-roll, maximum accuracy and superior levels of traction.

Developing 167bhp, the 1.6-litre, turbocharged petrol engine is not short of grunt and a healthy 184lbs ft of torque weighs-in from a lowly 1,800rpm, pulling strongly all the way to 4,800rpm and qualifying the car as a superb towing machine. It tops out at 130mph, despatches the 0-60mph sprint in around 8.5s, emits 164g/km CO2 (which equates to a hefty first year road tax levy of £515, although subsequent years are at the standard £140 rate) and, for a ‘Boxer’ engine, consumes fuel at an attainable Official Combined rate of 39.8mpg, which makes it one of Subaru’s most cost-conscious developments of the flat-four technology.

However, with its engine lying low beneath the bonnet, the real benefit arises from the in-line transmission that connects in a straight-line directly to the back axle, which is suspended by struts and double-wishbones. There is no corruption in the drive-train and the unique, active 4×4 system, complete with torque-split, works imperceptibly and impeccably. In fact, it is, without any doubt, the finest example of four-wheel-drive available on any car in the class. It avoids the technological complexities of other systems, which results in simply outstanding roadholding and handling capabilities. The car’s KYB damping is also among the most compliant of any car, even riding on 18.0-inch alloys clad in 225/45-section tyres, let alone a modestly sporting family estate car. There is zero fuss, zero impact on the driver but maximal comfort and control.

It is worth highlighting the fully-automatic Constantly Variable Transmission that Subaru calls ‘Lineartronic’. Well-practised in producing this type of gearless transmission, Subaru has engineered it to avoid the constant and annoying engine buzz of a car catching-up with its ‘gearing’. Instead, supported by up and down shift paddles located behind the steering wheel cross-spokes, a series of five shift-points provides the impression of six forward ratios and the Levorg can be hustled quite enjoyably along favourite back lanes, or just cruising in a most refined manner on main roads. It works very efficiently.

The Levorg is supremely well-built, its three-ringed safety cell construction confirming a kerbweight of 1,568kgs, which may seem hefty for a 4.69m long car, but it is exceptionally sturdy and feels as though its body has been hewn from the solid. It is this degree of integrity that imparts tremendous confidence to the driver. An abundance of tactile trim surfaces, high-quality and supportive leather seats and a well-stacked dashboard, with fine instrument clarity and colourful information displays are all impressive elements of a comprehensively capable motorcar.

The hatchback rear door lifts to reveal a well-shaped and easily accessible boot of 522-litres capacity, which can be almost trebled, when the rear seats are split-folded forwards, to satisfy load-carrying duties. Neatly carpeted, there is no possibility of scratching expensive designer luggage and a roll-out load cover hides boot contents away from prying eyes. There is also extra, secure oddments space below the boot floor.

Its price tag, prior to begging for dealer discounts, is a fairly steep £30,010 but, when you take into account the engineering integrity of the car, its all-wheel-drive, high equipment level and engaging driver appeal, the Subaru Levorg can look like conspicuously good value for money and it does compare most favourably with its closest rivals from the Teutonic stable. Most owners will want for very little and the car’s specification incorporates hill-start assist, wiper de-icers, power operation of most items including the driver’s seat, the now customary raft of driver aids, the twin-camera ‘Eyesight’ obstruction mitigation system, automatic air-con and a first-class stereo system (with CD-player!).

Conclusion:    Stylish but lacking self-consciousness, sporty but not overt, well-detailed but not excessive, the latest Subaru Levorg cuts a handsome profile and rewards its driver with impeccable road manners and delightful ease of control. Built to Audi standards of competence, it is a car worth contemplating, when safety and dynamic balance are key priorities.

 

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).